A film like UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO is equally refreshing and frustrating. Refreshing because it proves that there are still unearthed or misunderstood gems out there gathering dust on the studio shelves if we only take the time to rediscover them and frustrating because for every one of these there is another forgotten film from the same era you watch that doesn’t match its quality. A part of me wants this film to finally get a DVD release or some revival screenings at the very least just so I can help spread the word. It’s great to let everyone know about the film, but without an outlet to see it you’re just going to piss people off. Then again, films this good are one of the reasons why I started this column in the first place.
I first came across this film through a friend who brought a copy taped off cable when we got together to watch some films one day back in ’99. I remember that we also watched Michelle Yeoh in MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS and THE BLOOD-STAINED BRIDE at the same fest (I don’t know why, I just do) but I don’t really remember anything about them, but UNMAN stuck with me, so much so that I asked my friend to make me a copy just so I could watch it again at some point. Although I never looked at the film again until just recently, I remembered much of it, which I always feel is the sign of a quality film. Another sign of quality is when you have a VHS copy of a cable airing that still engrosses you then you know you’ve got a film that works, and UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO works big time. It’s an excellent combination of mainstream thriller with the tougher, more realistic British crime film of the early 70s that gave us the likes of GET CARTER (it’s no surprise that director John McKenzie later went on to direct THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY). And it’s no surprise, too, that it stars David Hemmings, an icon of the era who not only starred in this, BLOW-UP and Dario Argento’s DEEP RED (one of my favorite films) but also went on to direct Mr. T in several episodes of THE A-TEAM. I have no reason for mentioning that other than the fact that, well, it amuses me. But back to UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO…
Based on a play by Giles Cooper (which apparently still gets performed in schools around the U.K.), the premise is simple: First time teacher Hemmings gets a last-minute assignment to a small boarding school in Berkshire area of the U.K., by the River Thames. It seems as though the previous teacher had met with an accident while walking by the cliffs and a replacement is needed fast. Hemmings and his wife look forward to the opportunity as the start of a new life, but things don’t quite go as well as planned. The students are unruly and don’t seem to care about being taught. Hemmings tries to discipline them but the students inform him this might not be such a good idea. After all, the last teacher tried to do the same thing and that’s why they killed him.
Right there is one of the reasons I like this film so much, it has a great hook. Are the boys telling the truth or just messing with Hemmings’ in order to get their way? McKenzie lets this simmer for a long while before we really know for sure and as the film on edge. And once we do he never really loses us, despite a character bungle near the end that could have been fatal. But before that he comes up with some solid suspense that’s a delight to sit through. One sequence, which comes late in the film and involves Hemmings’ wife, is absolutely masterful in every regard (especially in its use of Geoffrey Unsworth’s beautiful, dark cinematography) and deserves to be regarded as a classic scene in its own right. Casting goes a long way in this, too, with Hemmings delivering an excellent performance; he never really got the recognition as an actor (or singer) that he deserved, along with solid support from the lovely Carolyn Seymour as his wife and all the boys in the class are perfectly cast vicious little British assholes. Special attention must also go to Nicholas Hoyle as Cloistermouth (they all have great British names like that) and the school itself (the Reading Coat School in Berkshire) is a character in and of itself. There’s little about this film I don’t like.
So all in all, a terrific movie. Not a great film, but a terrific one, one you want to show to people to show them how good your taste in movies is. Or write about it in a blog. I wish you could all see it and maybe someday you will, providing that Paramount gets off their duff and does something about it. Does anyone want to forward this posting over to them?